Professor Sara Pruss and Lexie Leeser ’21 have made a discovery that could change prevailing wisdom about early animal life on Earth. In a paper just published in Science Advances, they present fossil evidence that suggests colonial animals known as bryozoans appeared approximately 30 million years earlier than previously reported.
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WAV: Smith’s Data Science Corps
“Data done differently”—that’s the mission of a new experiential data science program Smith is leading for area college students.
The Data Science Corps: Wrangle, Analyze, Visualize (WAV) invites students to work in faculty-supervised teams with local nonprofits to address practical data-science needs. Each team is made up of a faculty supervisor and four to five students, including one student with a concentration in community engagement and social change who brings community organizing skills to the table.
The project, created by the college’s Statistical and Data Sciences Department in cooperation with Smith’s Jandon Center for Community Engagement, offers students a chance to apply their skills, while also helping community groups solve data problems they might otherwise be unable to tackle. Local nonprofit partners include VentureWell, ValleyBikes, Girls, Inc., the Nature Conservancy, the Western Massachusetts Health Equity Network and the Abortion Rights Fund of Western Massachusetts.
For data sciences major Eunice Kim ’22, joining a WAV team this fall was a way to “expand my horizons by working with real-world data. I wanted to get more experience working with an organization.”
Kim, who is studying at home in Georgia this semester, is part of a Smith team helping the all-volunteer Abortion Rights Fund of Western Massachusetts analyze trends from a decade’s worth of digital information about the fund’s efforts to ensure access to reproductive health care.
Her teammate Natalia Iannucci ’22 says working on a data problem with a community organization has been a valuable experience.
“Even in some classes when you work with real-life data sets, you do a little bit of analysis and then you move on to another topic,” says Iannucci, a data sciences and math major who is based in Northampton this semester. “This project has been helpful because we’ve been able to dive into things and look at them in a lot of detail. It’s been rewarding to learn what the organization needs and how we can work together.”
Other Smith students participating in the Data Science Corps this semester are Claire Bunn ’21, Dianne Caravela ’22, Emma Scott ’21 and Annabel Yim ’22.
In addition to providing students with hands-on data science experience, the corps aims to draw more women and members of other underrepresented groups to the field, says Smith faculty member Ben Baumer, who launched the project with support from the National Science Foundation last spring.
“Increasing the diversity of the data science workforce was part of this grant application from the beginning, and it affects everything we do,” says Baumer, who is associate professor of statistical and data sciences. “We have a real opportunity here to change the composition of the data science workforce.”
The Data Science Corps is currently accepting applications from college sophomores and juniors for the spring 2021 semester on a rolling basis beginning November 10.
What does the work of the student teams look like?
Assistant professor Randi Garcia—who is advising the abortion rights fund WAV team—notes that students are using state-of-the-art software and statistics tools such as GitHub and R to organize their workflow and analyze data collaboratively.
“We have a way for team members to get help on a section or task quickly if they feel blocked,” says Garcia, who is assistant professor of psychology and statistical and data sciences. “We’re fortunate that these tools are made to be used remotely.”
Kate Glynn ’06, who serves on the board of the abortion rights fund, says the student team is helping her organization “digest” years of digital data as the fund develops a new strategic plan. “One of the main excitement points about this project is being able to better understand who our callers are so we can reach more people,” she says.
Working with Smith students is particularly inspiring, adds Glynn, who earned her bachelor’s degree in child and family studies from Smith and formerly owned A Child’s Garden in Northampton. “I’m floored by their knowledge and how they are engaging with our organization in a real way,” she says.
For Claire Bunn ’21, the main takeaway from the WAV project has been “to see how data can be used for social change; not just something that happens in the classroom.”
As the community engagement concentrator for her team, she is focused on the “collaborative dynamic” with the nonprofit, and on sharing information about the community context in which the group’s data will be used.
Being part of a project that combines humanities, social science and data science has been empowering, says Bunn, who is majoring in American studies.
“Before, I had a very specific view of what it means to do social change work,” she notes. “This project has really helped me broaden my understanding.”